Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday Waffling (December 20th, 2014)

What do you think is going to happen in Last Christmas?

This is Philip Sandifer: Writer, currently featuring TARDIS Eruditorum and The Last War in Albion

I am currently working on: the secret Doctor Who project.

Post of the week: Reviews (December 17th, 2014)

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Green One and the Not-Green One (The Crimson Horror)

I don't know that I'd call it a crimson horror, really. Really, it's
more a rosy horror. Incarnadine horror at best.
It’s May 4th, 2013. Daft Punk have gotten lucky and made it to number one. Calvin Harris, Nelly, Macklemore, and, in a stunning feat of horror, will.i.am and Justin Bieber also chart. In news, James McCormick is jailed for ten years for selling fake bomb detectors, Labour and UKIP do well in local elections, and three more people are arrested over the Boston Marathon bombings. 

On television, meanwhile, The Crimson Horror, which is very possibly the most self-evident pairing of writer and concept in the history of Doctor Who. More than hiring David Whitaker to handle introducing a new Doctor over a backdrop of Daleks, more than giving Paul Cornell the small and personal story in the debut series, more even than giving Malcolm Hulke the giant lizards story, tapping Mark Gatiss to write the Victorian penny dreadful is simply a case of hiring a man to do what he’s good at. 

And correspondingly, in many regards The Crimson Horror is exactly what you’d expect. A ranting villain, a classic Doctor Who plot, broad gags. But as with Cold War, the details on this are all spot on. Yes, you’ve got a standard issue raving lunatic Doctor Who villain, but she’s played by Diana Rigg, whose appetite for scenery is gloriously boundless. (Surely there’s not a single person on the planet who does not love the line “the wrong hands.”) Strax irrevocably hits the “one note joke” point here, yes, but he also has his best gag with “horse, you have failed in your mission,” and to be fair, the bit where Vastra sends him outside because he’s gotten overexcited is, in fact, a new trick for the character, even if it’s basically the last one he ever gets. Neve McIntosh relishes getting to be the Doctor for a large swath of the story. The period stuff all looks great. And there are some lovely directorial flourishes, most notably the grainy film look used for the Doctor’s flashback exposition of how he got captured. 

And, yes, Gatiss deserves some specific praise here. This is not necessarily a story that’s long on logic, but everything moves along gracefully by dint of the fact that all the elements just go well together. And that speaks to a slyly good sense of judgment on Gatiss’s part. There’s no obvious reason why bright red bodies, the eyes of the dead holding images, Diana Rigg ranting, and Victorian finery should magically click together so as to make a coherent story in the absence of any significant plot logic, but they absolutely do. The Crimson Horror was never a contender for season-best, but it was tremendous fun when it aired - much more fun than you’d expect given that it seems like it should be very standard issue.

Indeed, this is the first story of Season 7B to be almost completely unfazed by the passage of more than a year since it aired. This is much as it was in May of 2013 - a story that’s almost ruthlessly straightforward. Part of this is that it’s the one story in Season 7B that you really can’t call the definitive take on its iconography. With The Snowmen just a few months prior and The Name of the Doctor two weeks after, the Victorian caper with the Paternoster Gang is a relatively standard part of this phase of the program’s tricks, and The Crimson Horror in many regards is less a definitive take than it is a solid execution of a formula - what Fury from the Deep is to bases under siege, and The Pyramids of Mars is to long dead foes threatening to return. The Victorian-era story featuring the Paternoster Gang is, if not quite the default mode of Doctor Who in this period, at least very close to it. 

We might fairly ask, however, how it is that a married lesbian inter-species couple and their Sontaran butler became a standard issue component of Doctor Who for a period. Well, no, actually, how is easy enough. Because Vastra, Jenny, and Strax stole every scene of A Good Man Goes to War that they were in, and Moffat has always been abnormally willing to trust the audience’s ability to accept sci-fi concepts. With all three characters having fairly straightforward high concept descriptions and being reasonably funny, it’s not hard to see how they ended up working. 

No, the real question is why Doctor Who suddenly decided to have the bulk of its standing support cast be aliens in Victorian London and not the contemporary Earth people that had previously been standard. Certainly some of it is that there was some real desire for change in this regard. Moffat had, after all, been seriously considering making Clara be a Victorian-era companion. Indeed, in many ways the easiest explanation is simply that the Paternoster Gang was always planned to feature heavily in Season 7B, and that after Clara was changed to no longer be a Victorian-era companion nobody went to change it back. (Although it’s worth stressing that The Crimson Horror was added after Clara was de-Victorianed, which means that it’s not just that the Paternoster Gang was kept around, but that their presence was actively increased.) 

But the appearance of the Maitland children at the end highlights another aspect of this, which is that Clara’s home life has been almost entirely ignored since The Bells of Saint John (and continues to be basically irrelevant until The Time of the Doctor). This is in many ways necessary for the Impossible Girl arc to function - if Clara had too much of a supporting cast, it would be too easy to focus on her instead of getting distracted by the mystery surrounding her. By moving the supporting cast into another time period (one that is, as we noted back in The Snowmen, still very easy to quickly sketch within the context of British television), Moffat gets all the benefits of a standing support cast without actually having them flesh Clara out prematurely and undermine his season-long shell game. 

This also helps explain both why The Crimson Horror exists, and why it breaks from the “definitive take” ethos of the rest of its season. It arguably is the definitive take on “Doctor Who does the penny dreadful,” but given that it invokes both six stories prior and two stories after, it never really gives the sense of being a stand-alone piece. It’s the one where the movie poster approach seems most off (not least because the movie poster plays up Clara and the Doctor while not mentioning the Paternoster Gang). But that’s because it’s not self-contained. Its job is to help establish recurring characters as a basic part of what the series can do, and to give the Paternoster Gang a story where they can function on their own terms, without having to tie in to a big event. In this regard, it’s disappointing that this isn’t the Doctor lite episode that one might have assumed from the setup. It’s fair to point out that most of its innovative ideas come in its first fifteen minutes, and that once he shows up and does his flashback bit, the story becomes considerably more standard issue - although Diana Rigg keeps things going at a nice clip. 

Actually, the bit where the Doctor shows up is worth talking about, simply because if I don’t, someone will bring it up anyway. It is, after all, the sequence during which the Doctor attempts to kiss Jenny, or, if you prefer the description of Moffat’s most adamant critics, the scene where he sexually assaults her. This is the sort of thing that one wants to equivocate on rather a lot. I will admit that I find the description of the scene as “sexual assault” somewhat forced. It’s not, and really I only disclaim this because otherwise some idiot is going to use the lack of disclaimer against me, that aggressively kissing somebody without consent isn’t sexual assault. It is. But here the fact that this is a work of fiction starts to play in and become relevant. There’s much to say about popular culture’s poor depictions of consent, but the spontaneous kiss is such an ingrained part of television and film that it seems more than faintly ridiculous to attempt to get a single moment of a single episode of Doctor Who to bear all or most of the weight of the numerous problems with our narrative shorthands for romance and sexuality. 

Beyond that, it’s not like the kiss is presented as acceptable. Jenny slaps the Doctor for it, in a way that makes it quite clear that this is misbehavior on his part. To describe it as “the Doctor sexually assaults Jenny” is blatantly to pick the most inflammatory phrasing possible, and feels like co-opting the reality of sexual assault for the purposes of scoring cheap points when arguing about television on the Internet. 

But that doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t troubling. And it’s especially troubling in light of Matt Smith’s later improvisation of a sonic screwdriver/erection sight gag when Jenny tears off her period garb to reveal her leather catsuit. The problem is that, especially taken together, they start to give a strong sense that Jenny is sexualized for a male gaze, which is not a great move when dealing with one of the two most prominent lesbian characters in the series’ history. Jenny and Vastra are played for plenty of laughs, but the joke is usually either about foolish people who don’t understand them or about the charming comfort and confidence they have with each other. Here, though, the joke is “aren’t attractive lesbians great.” 

The irony that this should happen in the one Paternoster episode not written by a heterosexual male is, of course, considerable. Although in practice it seems the blame for this mostly goes to Smith (although both Stewart and Metzstein should have, in both cases, resisted Smith’s idea), it’s hard not to note that Gatiss, in six (now seven) Doctor Who stories, has only ever created four major female characters in the supporting cast (Gwyneth, the Wire, Ada, and Mrs. Gillyflower are the only four to get a significant number of lines or scenes), and that Ada is the first one ever to actually survive the episode. So to see the one episode where Gatiss seems particularly interested in writing about half of his species run into problems like this is frustrating, and the fact that people who spend a lot of time being wrong on the Internet have inflated that objection into something far bigger than it deserves to be (and seem intent on mostly blaming Moffat for it) doesn’t actually mean that there isn’t a problem here.

Speaking of things that I pretty much have to mention and make some comment on, there’s also the two lines of Blake’s “Jerusalem” that are sung early in the episode. Very well: given that Parry didn’t set “Jerusalem” to music until 1916, its appearance in an episode set in 1893 is somewhat strange. But then again, that’s probably the sort of thing that happens if you do something like decide to make a poem by William Blake your de facto national anthem. 

This also marks the last time we’re going to talk about Mark Gatiss in the course of TARDIS Eruditorum, and that’s probably worth remarking on, simply because he’s a figure that I’ve given, at various times, something of a rough ride to, and someone I think, on the whole, I’ve probably been a bit too rough on. (Ignoring Nightshade, for instance, was just rude of me.) And, I mean, I’m not going to pretend it’s not understandable why that’s happened. Gatiss is, if not responsible, at least the guy with the writing credit on some spectacularly shit episodes. And there are ways in which Gatiss’s style contributes to that. He’s far from the most ambitious of writers, and if you’re the sort of person who has been writing about Doctor Who 2-3 times a week for the past three years and thinking about it literally every day, that really is a major problem. As I’ve said, after three years of writing TARDIS Eruditorum, there’s nothing I want out of Doctor Who quite so much as something I’ve never seen before, and that’s the last thing Gatiss is likely to serve up. 


And yet for all of that, having watched every single episode of Doctor Who within the last three years, I find myself with a strange respect for Mark Gatiss. There is nobody who has done more in terms of curating the past of Doctor Who than any other writer on the new series. And for Gatiss, that curation goes far beyond just remembering the good episodes, or throwing in continuity references. Gatiss remembers scenes and images - the texture of episodes, rather than their content. As we close in on the end of the 50th Anniversary year, that seems worth remembering and, more to the point, tipping our hat to. Even if his episodes aren’t the most exciting of the bunch, they are the ones that, I think, most thoroughly and truly honor the history of the series. That’s worth more credit than I’ve given him. It really is.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reviews (December 17th, 2014)

So, just reviews this week, because I want to open with music, as Seeming has a new album out called Silent DiscoVery, so let's start with that.

It's a discipline worth maintaining, I increasingly feel, to remain aggressively plugged into the rhythms and promotional cycle of pop media. Television and comics both work well for this, but given that the entire rhetoric of "pop media" comes from music, one really ought to have at least one. For me, it's Seeming, for a variety of reasons. Yes, Alex is a dear friend, and Aaron's a lovely bloke as well. Yes, it really does help with the "stay plugged into the immense nowness of pop" thing when Alex sends you a new demo every couple of weeks. (I've been rocking out to the lead single off the next release for months now.)

Also, I love it. I just unabashedly fucking love the stuff Alex is doing right now, and I want everybody to listen to it. It's at once well plugged in to current pop culture concerns (it's a wonderful time for eschatology and utopian nihilism) and vibrantly idiosyncratic. So, new album, very exciting, let's talk about what it says.

Silent DiscoVery is the outtakes album from his brilliant Madness and Extinction. If you've not bought or at least listened to that album, please do. It's streaming free on Bandcamp here. It's worth checking out. And if you've not listened to it... well, Silent DiscoVery isn't necessarily the place to start, although it's worth checking out some of the songs.

But that's outtakes albums for you - their entire conceit, in the end, is that they're the stuff that didn't quite work on the album proper. That doesn't mean not good enough, certainly. But every track on an outtakes album, by its very existence, opens up a fan debate on "was this rightly excluded from the album?" Tellingly, the answer, for all ten of these songs, is "because they were great ideas that belonged on a different album" and not "because they weren't good enough."

So, for instance, the first track, "Everything," is a great song. Brilliant, sweeping, epic, all sorts of fun. Only problem is that it's not quite as good as "Everything Could Change," and the two songs not only have similar titles, they have musically similar endings, and you just can't put both of them on the same album. So to the outtake pile this gem goes. (I've been loving the line "do you see your reflection when my glass is dark" for years, though actually, at the time of writing, it's "did you know birds and metal outlive the likes of you" that's stuck on a loop in my head.)

Elsewhere you've got "Bayonet," which is a great song for Alex's previous band, ThouShaltNot, but that flounders ever so slightly as a Seeming song. And "Name Those Stars," a peppy little number with a synth line that sounds uncannily like the bass hook from John Linnell's "South Carolina," and that, perhaps more importantly, is just a little too peppy and too upbeat for an album called Madness and Extinction.

The marquee track is undoubtedly "Silent Disco," which has been clacking around for a while, and which already saw release as a single (backed by a glorious Tori Amos cover and a fun extended mix of "The Burial"). It's one of two tracks you can fairly accuse of being jokes (the other, "Which House?" isn't even arguable at this point), with the entire song built around a gloriously bad pun ("disco[nnect]"), but is a ruthless earworm in its own right.

For me, though, the standout tracks are "Muscle Memory," a song I've known for years, and that actually played an absolutely massive role in the development of the Nintendo Project, and "Party to Say Goodbye," a roaring anthem of adolescent terror.

With almost all of these, it's easy to see why they didn't make Madness and Extinction, an album that, from its title on, is pretty unrelenting in its aesthetic vision. And so it's nice to see Seeming carve out a larger account of what it is and what it can do as a band - one that includes more than unrelenting apocalypse parties. And perhaps more importantly, it's worth seeing what the rock that Madness and Extinction was chiseled out of consisted of - what other things that album could have been.

Like any good outtakes album, I guarantee you one of your favorite songs by the band will be on it somewhere. If you liked Madness and Extinction, this is a must-by. And if you didn't get around to it, well, go check it out, and maybe click through on this one and give "Party to Say Goodbye," "Muscle Memory," and "Everything" a spin. Frankly, even if Madness and Extinction wasn't your cup of tea, there's enough secret histories of the album and the band here to entice, and you should still give it a spin.

On to the week's comics. As ever, from worst to best, with everything being something I willingly, if not entirely sanely, paid money for.

Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man #8

So, I want to say, this is a perfectly self-consistent creative decision on Bendis's part. He's been doing this style of retcon issue for ages. He's good at it. It's part of what he does. All the same, my reaction to this comic is one of immense and overwhelming irritation. The "next" tagline on issue #7 was "all of the cards on all of the tables." This issue is nineteen pages of flashback featuring Miles's father, a final page that's the only place the title character appears, and a cliffhanger promising more revelations next month. All of this for $3.99. Which I do feel obliged to highlight, because twenty cents a story page is not a reasonable price point for an ostentatiously decompressed retcon that blatantly doesn't deliver on the promise advertised last month. (Note that the biggest revelation in #7, that Kate Bishop's entire family is Hydra, isn't even touched in this.) I'm angry at this comic. I feel ripped off. I feel like this isn't a fair or reasonable value for money, and like Bendis's style, well-honed as it is, is simply fundamentally inappropriate for a story solicited and priced like this.

Annihilator #4

Man, this is one of my least favorite Grant Morrison comics in years. Also, the entire sci-fi plot is blatantly just The Book of Urizen with the serial numbers filed off. "Vada organizes, Vada imitates! Nomax creates!" Indeed.

Moon Knight #10

I have a fundamental irritation with comics that set up tremendously compelling moral cases for their villains before shrugging and saying "yeah, but extrajudicial assassinations that don't support American power can't possibly be the sort of thing good guys do" and moving on to something much less interesting.

Guardians of the Galaxy #22

Two issues into the "Planet of the Symbiotes" arc, there is no actual Planet of the Symbiotes in sight.

Fables #147

The fact that Bill Willingham's basic worldview is morally repugnant to me is increasingly clearly going to be a major issue in how this resolves. "This is a lovely dream, but it's a hild's dream. I know some who'd argue the point, but I grew up long ago." What an absolutely awful thing to say in the context of a book about fairy tales.

Wytches #3

Ironically, given the five books below this in the rankings, I'll be dropping this, as it's just not grabbing me. It's well put together and I see the appeal, but Jock's art style, though very good at what it does, makes the basic storytelling here quite rough for me, and between that and the "more questions than answers" storytelling style, I just find the individual issues here to take a lot of energy and investment without actually giving much in return.

Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #2

This failed to pull a few weeks ago when it came out. The decision to focus on the non-inverted characters here made this much better than the rough start the book had at first, but man, I look forward to Axis being over.

Captain Marvel #10

Neat conceit and style to this - an issue focused on the earth-based side cast of the title, who have been neglected for eight issues as this went with being a space book instead. I really enjoyed this, which is good, as this book was starting to become a reliable let-down for me.

All-New X-Men #34

It feels like this arc has been going on forever, but this is a good issue of it. Love the Jean Grey meets Jean Grey bits. Not sure why there were pages of this comic focused on anything other than that, actually. But I had quite a bit of fun with this, even if, writing it up a few hours after I read it, the details are already rapidly sliding from my mind.

Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures

I'd just claim it as the best Shazam comic since Jeff Smith, but the level of competition for that title is so abysmally low that I don't really think it would successfully communicate the charm of this. I just read some of the earliest Captain Marvel stuff as background research for Last War in Albion, and so this was a welcome treat. A real delight of a comic. There are many weeks where this and any of the four ahead of it would straightforwardly be my number one - hell of a good week, this one.

The Sandman Overture #4

You know, "the father of the Endless" sounds like it should be an outright disaster of a concept, but it manages to work. Williams is in absolutely screamingly good form here, and Gaiman's story is starting to come into enough focus to feel like there's actually a point to the exercise. Which, to be fair, you could always accuse Sandman of being a comic built for the trade, so there's form here. There are numerous irritations in this book's meandering release - a "wait for the trade" pace coupled with issues coming out months late is genuinely frustrating. But I have to admit, reading this, that I didn't care about any of that and was just having a lovely time.

Stumptown #4

Brilliant issue of this, with everything you want from this sort of Rucka book. Great character moments, an unquestionably noble and unquestionably flawed protagonist, and the US soccer fandom texture continues to have a wonderful vibrancy to it. Good fun.

The Wicked and the Divine #6

It's back! It's brilliant! Innana's a great character, but it's the flashback scene with the asshole snob fan that really makes it. I think "I'm not sure whether there's any chance of this being a vintage pantheon like in the 1920s or 1640s" may be one of my favorite lines of all time, simply for all the careful layers of parody involved. It starts to become very clear where this comic is going, most obviously in the line "I know I have this thing inside me, but however hard I work it just won't come out." Like, there's Laura's entire remaining character arc in one line, ennit? Some great texture on the bedroom page as well (glad to see them going back to this technique), although I will probably go to my grave wondering if the L was deliberately omitted from the diagram. (Nah, I bet Gillen will explain in the writer's notes, actually.)

Ms. Marvel #10

I love when these two books come out on the same week, because it means I spend half an hour rereading one, then the other trying to decide who the winner is. I feel like I give it to Ms. Marvel more often than I give it to WicDiv, although I think that's probably just me overcorrecting - I'd say WicDiv is the better book, or, at least, the one I'm more invested in. But this really charmed me - both in how well I remembered the plot details two months after the last issue, and in its general approach. I read a Gillen interview recently where he bemoaned the fact that Marvel isn't willing to let the teen heroes be right and the mainstay adult heroes be wrong very often. Well, here's G. Willow Wilson getting that perfectly right, with a kind of beautiful "the kids are all right" vibe. Yes, the critique of youth is a ridiculous strawman, but there's an absolutely gorgeous ridiculousness to it. This may be my favorite villain scheme in recent memory, actually, just for the way it mixes being completely bonkers with a spot-on ideology.

An Unruly Torrent (The Last War in Albion Part 75: Violence and Versions)

This is the third of fifteen parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Nine, focusing on Alan Moore's work on V for Vendetta for Warrior (in effect, Books One and Two of the DC Comics collection). An omnibus of all fifteen parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in a collected edition, along with the eventual completion of the story. UK-based readers can buy it here.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionAlan Moore's work on V for Vendetta included some of his earliest uses of one of his signature techniques, that of paralleling narration or dialogue from one scene with images from another to highlight the contrast.

"Institutions and authorities designed for the far simpler reality of just a hundred years ago have burst their banks; have found their timeworn principles inadequate to a flash influx of insight and revelation, an unruly torrent carrying us all struggling towards the edge of a Niagra future in amidst our driftwood debris of outmoded ideologies." - Alan Moore, birthday greetings to Chelsea Manning

Figure 570: V's quotations from Macbeth in
the first installment resonate with his actions
in rescuing Evey. (Written by Alan Moore, art
by David Lloyd, from "The Villain" in Warrior
#1, 1982)
But “Virtue Victorious” does not use its contrast for comedy, or, at least, not for any straightforward comedy, and the point is not the contrast between the bishop’s words and the images, but the way in which the two intersect and resemble each other. The bishop is praying for divine forgiveness for the child molestation he’s about to commit, but when he speaks of “the evil one who is surely come amongst us in this, the hour of our greatest trial,” the images of V fighting his way through the guards give clear double meaning to these words. The sequence is of course not unprecedented - it is in many ways simply a refinement of the technique Moore was using back in the first installment, where he had V quoting Macbeth while slicing his way through the Fingermen threatening Evey. But the refinement is in this case significant, with the text and images in “Virtue Victorious” coming from two distinct scenes that are allowed, in effect, to play simultaneously. As the comic went on, Moore grew even more confident, eventually doing away with most of the dialogue and words entirely and giving Lloyd stretches of pages at a time in which the storytelling is entirely visual, or where, to use an example from Book Two, a chapter in which the only dialogue comes from television broadcasts playing out in the background. These are in some ways small potatoes compared to the expansive formal and stylistic experiments that Moore would later become known for, but nevertheless, the advancement within the course of the serial is significant, and it’s not surprising that Moore refers to the comic as “one of the first real major breakthroughs I made in terms of my own personal style.”

But for all that V for Vendetta evolved formally, it’s clear that the overall outline snapped into place fairly early, and Moore’s setting up of the larger theme of violence and its legitimacy in Book One is clearly aimed at allowing further exploration of that theme at a later date. It is in this regard perhaps significant to note that the chapter entitled “Violence” was not actually Moore’s first attempt to do a chapter with that title. The first attempt came four chapters earlier, when he wrote a script for the fifth chapter, to be published in Warrior #5 in September of 1982 (the same month as his short story “Sunburn” in 2000 AD), and at that point using the title “Violence.” As David Lloyd tells the story, this script was the lone time on V for Vendetta that he “saw something [Moore had] written for it that failed to slot into place like the perfectly machined component I always expected him to manufacture,” and that the script seemed rushed and generic. Moore, for his part, immediately asked Lloyd what he’d thought of the script when they talked, then cut him off at “well, erm” to say that he agreed and would write a different one.

The bulk of the abandoned script consists of two paralleled sequences - one of Evey and V sparring in the Shadow Gallery, and the other of a training operation focused on capturing or killing V, overseen by Derek Almond. The former consists of V taking dirty shots at Evey - striking her when her back is turned and she’s massaging her leg from an earlier blow. Eventually Evey, enduring a lecture from V about how she’s improving, but “must learn not to be so predictable. The essence of success is surprise,” finally snaps - Moore describes her as “boiling with suppressed fury” and notes to Lloyd, “I don’t know if you’ve ever been a beginner at a martial arts class and had the shit stomped out of you by people far better than yourself, but if you have then you’ll know how Evey feels. She is trembling with impotent rage” - and knees V in the crotch. He staggers back, leaning on the mantlepiece in pain, and limps off telling Evey “that was very good… never fight people on their own terms. You’re learning.”

Figure 571: Warrior #5, which was originally
intended to house an episode of V for Vendetta
entitled "Violence."
The latter sequence, on the other hand, hinges on a well-rehearsed and well-drilled takedown exercise in which the central twist is the revelation that the character the audience is initially allowed to believe might be V (Moore specifies that the first cut from the Shadow Gallery to the training exercise should be “sudden and very confusing”) is in fact a cop. The sequence ends with a cut from Almond drilling his forces to the Leader, named for the first time as Adam Susan, consulting with the computer, Fate, on the likelihood of Almond’s plan succeeding (Fate assesses the odds of success at 78.055%), and Susan ultimately decides to enact Fate’s plan. The script ends with another narrative caption reading, “His name is Adam Susan. he is called the leader. But fate has spoken, and he does as he is told. Immediately.” 

As with the later chapter entitled “Violence,” the purpose of the script is clearly to juxtapose these two instances of violence. But unlike the actual published “Violence,” there is no moral dimension to the violence on display. Both acts of violence are simulations. They are not being pitted against each other in any moral sense, but rather in a purely tactical and instrumental sense. The only question is which approach is more effective - Almond’s well-drilled operation, or V’s embrace of unpredictability. In this regard the implicit answer is perhaps too simple, with V’s methodology clearly serving as a response to the rigid approach of Almond and his Fingermen. Indeed, this simplicity pervades the unused Chapter Five, and it’s not hard to see why Lloyd objected to a script that, in his view, leaned too heavily on a cliche martial arts scene and “didn’t really take us very far.” 

But the nature of the abandoned script’s take on violence is indicative of the terms on which Moore was conceiving of the series at this stage. The issue of violence is clearly entirely instrumental. The chapter is only concerned with the question of what approach to violence is more effective, an issue it treats as fundamentally tied to the underlying conflict between V and the fascist regime, and isn’t even broaching the question of violence as a moral issue at this point. More to the point, by the time it does approach violence as a moral issue, it is purely as a question of two different approaches to being a revolutionary terrorist. Even as it becomes a moral question, in other words, it still remains fundamentally a discussion about tactics - a secondary issue to the book’s main themes.

Figure 572: Adam Susan drives past the statue
of Justice atop the Old Bailey as he monologues
about the virtues of fascism. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by David Lloyd, in Warrior #5, 1982)
These themes are rendered most explicit in the chapter Moore wrote to replace the abandoned “Violence” version of Chapter Five, entitled “Versions.” The chapter is presented as two monologues, each presented as a discrete whole, as opposed to with any cutting between them. The first is by Adam Susan, and is in effect an extended version of the final beat of the abandoned script. It consists of Susan reflecting, in interior monologue, on the nature of his life as he approaches his headquarters, walking into the office past the Hitler salutes and ascending the elevator to his private chamber, where he communes with the computer Fate. He proclaims bluntly, “I believe in survival, in the destiny of the Nordic race. I believe in fascism.” He goes on to explain this, using the traditional fascist image of a set of bound twigs and the metaphor of “strength in unity” that it represents. “I will not hear talk of freedom,” Susan declares. “I will not hear talk of individual liberty. They are luxuries. I do not believe in luxuries. The war put paid to luxury. The war put paid to freedom.” 

Figure 573: Adam Susan, ensconced within
his lover, magnificently isolated. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by David Lloyd, from "Versions"
in Warrior #5, 1982)
Susan is, however, quick to point out that he does not allow himself the luxuries he denies others. “I sit here within my cage and I am but a servant,” he insists. He goes on to clarify that he loves and serves Fate, explaining, “I stand at the gates of her intellect and I am blinded by the light within. How stupid I must seem to her. How childlike and uncomprehending. Her soul is clean, untainted by the snares and ambiguities of emotion. She does not hate. She does not yearn. She is untouched by joy or sorrow. I worship her, though I am not worthy. I cherish the purity of her disdain. She does not respect me. She does not fear me. She does not love me.” The section ends with a gradual closeup of Susan’s face as he proclaims, “Fate… Fate… I love you,” and then a wide shot of him, alone and isolated with his computer lover/ruler.

Figure 574: V addresses Justice. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by David Lloyd,
from "Versions" in Warrior #5,
1982)
The second section is a monologue from V directed to the statue of Justice atop the Old Bailey - a statue that Susan stares at as he drives past at the start of his own monologue. V’s monologue takes the form of an imagined dialogue with Justice, with V filling in her dialogue. V explains to Justice that he once considered himself in love with her (“Please don’t think it was merely physical. I know you’re not that sort of girl,” he reassures her), but that he has since moved on to someone else. “What? V!,” he imagines Justice saying. “You have betrayed me for some harlot, some vain and pouting hussy with painted lips and a knowing smile.” But V retorts that it was in fact Justice’s own infidelity - her fling with “a man in uniform… with his armbands and jackboots!” 

Figure 575: V destroys another
London landmark. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by David Lloyd,
from "Versions" in Warrior #5, 1982)
“You are no longer my Justice. You are his Justice now,” V proclaims, and says that he too has another mistress. “Her name is Anarchy,” he says, “and she has taught me more as a mistress than you ever did! She has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom.” Justice, on the other hand, he dismisses as a “Jezebel” and sneers, “I used to wonder why you could never look me in the eye. Now I know.” And so V departs, leaving his former lover “a final gift,” a heart-shaped box he leaves at her feet before walking away, at which point, as is wont to happen with V, the box spectacularly explodes, destroying the statue of Justice. “The flames of freedom. How lovely. How just,” V muses as he looks back at his handiwork. 

Figure 576: The transition between the two eponymous versions. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by David Lloyd, from "Versions" in Warrior #5, 1982)
For all that this is markedly different from the abandoned script, there are similarities. For one thing, “Versions” ends with a one-page epilogue of Eric Finch trying to question the seemingly hopelessly insane Louis Prothero about V that is, with only a few minor changes to the dialogue, the first page of the abandoned “Violence” script. More substantively, however, both “Versions” and the unused “Violence” are based on the use of two parallel scenes, one of V and the other of the fascist regime. But where “Violence” cut back and forth between the two scenes several times, “Versions” keeps the two strands separate, having them meet in the chapter’s third page, in which the first four panels are devoted to the tail end of Adam Susan’s version, the last four to V’s, and the middle panel to an establishing shot of the Old Bailey. It is, in other words, an altogether more rigid structure, and marks the first of many times in Moore’s career that he turns to a formalism to help him with a misbehaving script. 

The more rigid structure, along with the title and declaration of each monologue as “first version” and “second version” puts considerably greater emphasis on the idea of V and Susan as representing contrasting visions of the world. But this gets at the more significant difference between “Versions” and “Violence,” which is that where “Violence” contrasted V and the fascists on the basis of their tactics, “Versions” contrasts them on a more fundamental philosophical level. And for all that the comic is clearly on V’s side, it goes out of its way to present Susan’s position, if not quite sympathetically, at least credibly. Moore has talked on several occasions about the effort he put into writing the fascist characters, and specifically about how this evolved over the course of working on the series, talking about how “I’d look at a character who I’d previously seen as a one-dimensional Nazi baddy and suddenly realize that he or she would have thoughts and opinions the same as everyone else,” and about how, for all that fascists were in practice his real-life political enemies, “in fact fascists are people who work in factories, probably are nice to their kids, it's just that they're fascists. They're just ordinary.” [continued]

Monday, December 15, 2014

Now Just a Moment: The Doctors Revisited (Tom Baker)

That this should prove so difficult is in many ways revealing. First, we should start with what this isn't, which is an account of Tom Baker as the definitive Doctor. Satisfyingly, this isn't accomplished with some deconstruction. This is unabashed hagiography - just not to the exclusion of other eras. The result is on a basic level satisfying: the joy that is Tom Baker's Doctor is celebrated, but without the distorting effect that the era sometimes has.

But it's curious that there's no real attention given to the sheer span of Baker's tenure. Indeed, what really jumps out about this is that Baker's tenure is reduced almost entirely to its first half. There's some clips from City of Death, and K-9 makes the companion list, but for the most part there's not a breath of acknowledgment of anything that wasn't part of the Hinchcliffe era. Romana isn't mentioned outside of the City of Death clips. Davros is talked about entirely in terms of Genesis of the Daleks. The other stories to get decent clips are Terror of the Zygons, Robot, Talons of Weng-Chiang, and The Ark in Space.

It's not full-out erasure, and there's certainly no overt misrepresentations, but it's strange to see the Hinchcliffe-only take on Tom Baker, simply because it opens a weird gap in the chronology of this - there's a chunk as long as the Hartnell or Troughton eras that's all but cut from the official history.

Some of that is a product of the focus only on actors. The good old "gothic horror to comedy" transition that is part of the history of the program through this era is, fair enough, outside the remit of The Doctors Revisited. And the aspects of the Doctor's character that are focused on are mainly the more comedic ones, so in a way, even if all the examples are Hinchcliffe-era, it's the Williams-era version of the character that's remembered. Which has kind of always been the case.

But another way of putting that is that this is account is almost completely uninterested in the stories. Tom Baker's performance consumes everything around it, even today. The fact that this is the first installment of The Doctor's Revisited to have the Doctor in question on hand to interview adds to that, although the actual use of Tom Baker tends to be as a slightly unreliable narrator of his own era. But the focus is very firmly on the character, which Tom Baker as good as says at the beginning, when he admits that the line between himself and his character got blurred.

None of this is helped by the choice of stories to show afterwards. The Pyramids of Mars is not a bad story, although its fourth episode is a bit of a mess. But it's a tragically safe choice, and it's telling that Moffat, in introducing it, finds himself mostly talking about Tom Baker's performance once again before adding a few sentences about how the story's pretty good. The Ark in Space, The Terror of the Zygons, The Brain of Morbius, The Robots of Death, and City of Death were all the right length, and all perfectly defensible choices. All of them, one suspects, Moffat could have said more about than "it makes sci-fi out of a mummy movie."

So in an odd way, despite avoiding the trap of proclaiming Tom Baker to be the best Doctor, this special ends up falling into all of the same problems. No matter what you do, somehow, even now, the sheer charisma of Baker's performance seems to crowd everything else out of the picture. But after this many decades of that being true, one almost has to concede that the performance might just actually be that good and that charismatic.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Waffling (December 13th, 2014)

Describe what you want Doctor Who to be like in 2017. Who's in it? Who's making it? What is it trying to do?

This is Philip Sandifer: Writer, currently featuring TARDIS Eruditorum and The Last War in Albion

I am currently working on: the secret Doctor Who project.

Post of the week: The Game and How Toby Whithouse Lost It

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Advantage of my Antiquated TARDIS (Journey to the Center of the TARDIS)

I'll be honest, I don't have anything funny to say about this image.
I was just scrolling through the Google Image Search for this episode
and thought "you know, that is pretty..."
If you missed it, we had a post on The Game yesterday.

It’s April 27th, 2013. Rudimental is at number one with “Waiting All Night,” with will.i.am, Daft Punk, Nelly, Pink, and Psy also charting, the latter not with “Gangnam Style.” In news, the US stock market loses 1% of its value momentarily due to the AP Twitter feed getting hacked and releasing false news of a terrorist attack injuring President Obama, and, erm, that’s about it. 

On television, it’s Journey to the Center of the TARDIS. As with much of Season Seven, it’s strange how a year has changed this. At the time, it seemed an oddly disjointed story that was in need of another draft. Now… well, it still seems like that, admittedly. The “they convinced their brother he was a robot” twist is infamously absurd, although I admit, I’ve always felt like it’s a marvelous return to the completely bonkers legacy of a program that was unafraid to be ridiculous. I admit that I’ve never quite gotten over the moment, about half an hour in, when I was completely convinced the time zombies were going to turn out to be an origin story of the Silence (of course they’re forged in an exploding TARDIS!), only to have a wildly less interesting reveal. And the fact that the story can be summarized as “the TARDIS is hijacked by a bunch of black men because the Doctor let a woman drive” is, to say the least, unfortunate. 

And, of course, it is the story in which the complaint that Moffat is fond of reset buttons really does acquire legs. This is one of those cases where the one time something really doesn’t work ends up making all the times it did weirdly conspicuous and slightly suspect. It is true that there are a solid few times that Moffat does the “and at the end of the story we undo everything that happened” trick, but generally he avoids the extent to which this is a frustrating twist that’s too similar to “it was all a dream” by making it so that our main characters remember it both ways, allowing the significant consequences of the adventure to still count. Yes, The Big Bang and The Wedding of River Song both get undone at the end, but notably, they don’t get undone for any of the major characters within them. 

That’s not, unfortunately, how this one works. Journey to the Center of the TARDIS completely undoes the adventure for Clara. Which is immensely frustrating, because it actually has some very good character development for her. On one level, this is just a crass delaying tactic. It’s a way for the season to have its cake and eat it too, paying lip service to developing the Impossible Girl arc further and, in effect, spending a whole episode rehearsing the finale. But it’s also notable that the story brings Clara as close to her post-Name of the Doctor characterization as she gets in Season 7B, only to then drag her back.

As with much of Season 7B, this last point is important. More than any story this season save perhaps The Rings of Akhaten, however, this is improved once the Impossible Girl arc is resolved. Clara’s stinging condemnations of the Doctor and her declaration that he’s the scariest thing on the TARDIS resonate. Many of the oddities, most particularly the way in which the story holds the Doctor at a slight remove, jump out impressively when you realize that this is the point of the exercise. 

There is also, fittingly for the 50th Anniversary, a measure of historical repair work done here. It’s notable that it took until The Doctor’s Wife for the new series to really hint at the idea that the TARDIS contained considerable depth beyond the console room, a point that, while not exactly a mainstay of the classic series, is nevertheless a classic part of Doctor Who lore. And while The Doctor’s Wife added immeasurably to the weight of TARDIS lore and, in many ways, did more for the sense of the TARDIS’s scale than this or any other story, it still mostly just added corridors to run through. Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, being a Doctor Who story, does indeed have loads of corridors, but also finally makes the TARDIS feel like the infinitely large maze of possibility that it’s always been suggested as. 

So while it is, admittedly, a bit weird to try to correct the faults of The Invasion of Time in 2013, it’s worth acknowledging that this story does, in fact, do a lot. Indeed, it manages to consolidate and make explicit large swaths of TARDIS lore in a way that satisfyingly acknowledges the past. Sure, it’s only a couple of die-hard anoraks who actually care that we’ve now finally sorted out the whole “wait is the Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey or on TARDISes” thing, but equally, the idea that every single TARDIS is individually built out of an exploding star on the brink of collapsing into a black hole really does give them a sense of majesty that they deserve. Similarly, the explicit acknowledgment of the “conceptual geometry circuits” is not necessary in any meaningful sense, but it’s also nice to finally have that as an explicit statement, as it’s always been one of the more enticing things hinted at by the existing lore.

But in hindsight, where this really distinguishes itself is in terms of Clara. The Impossible Girl arc, as has been noted many a time, does not actually do Clara any favors this season. This is no fault of Jenna Coleman, who spends 2013 laying foundation for a performance she’d expand on dramatically the next season. But this, it turns out, is a keystone performance. The idea of Clara as a companion who actively interrogates the Doctor is ultimately going to become essential to who she is. The idea of the companion as a humanizing force for the Doctor has always been there, and has been a huge focus of the new series ever since Davies’s “Lonely God” approach, but Clara takes a different approach.

Specifically, Clara is very much defined by a genre awareness that means that she doesn’t just critique the Doctor, she critiques the story. This is, in fact, explicit in this episode, where her reaction to the time zombies is framed in terms of “basic storytelling.” Given Moffat’s inclination towards building the suspense of a story around the question of what sort of story it is, this is a hugely useful type of character for him. Indeed, it’s essential to the Impossible Girl arc that Clara be a character who can offer a moral critique of the story she’s in. 

Except it’s not even quite that. There clearly is a moral dimension to the Impossible Girl arc - it’s a direct rejoinder to the critique that all of Moffat’s female characters are puzzles to be solved. But this isn’t the critique Clara actually offers of it. Amy was the character who offered straightforward moral critiques of the Doctor - something that was a part of her character from her second story on. But Clara’s critiques of the Doctor are critiques of genre and storytelling. Or, put another way, they’re aesthetic critiques. 

One consequence is that they’re much more personal, which is fitting for the Impossible Girl arc. The problem becomes the Doctor’s erasure of Clara - his refusal to see her for who she is. It’s not about the mystery, but rather about the way in which the mystery is a flawed lens through which to view her. But this is fundamentally a selfish desire - a point that, of course, eventually gets reaffirmed with Clara’s self-identification as a “bossy control freak.” Nevertheless, it’s a significant shift. Amy, ultimately, wanted her story to be the “right” story. Clara, on the other hand, wants ownership of her story. Goodness has nothing to do with it, as it were.

And this, crucially, is reinforced by Coleman’s performance. One of the unheralded aspects of this story is the skill with which Coleman handles lengthy solo scenes in the TARDIS. She gets a fair amount of talking to herself to make it easier, but so much of that section of the story is really anchored by the physicality of Coleman’s performance. It’s worth rewatching to see the way she uses the frame - her working out of the claw marks on the TARDIS wall is particularly elegant. She’s lithe and precise, but she’s also always making quite large movements that take up quite a bit of space. It’s something that never really gets a chance to be thoroughly developed, but there’s a beautiful contrast between Coleman and Smith in the fact that both give immensely physical performances, and more to the point, both give physically big performances, in the sense of taking up a lot of space with their performance. And yet nevertheless, their performances are fundamental opposites. Smith is full of broad, self-consciously awkward movements. He flails, famously. Coleman, on the other hand, is precise and mannered. The amount of characterization implicit in that is immense. 

It is perhaps notable that we’ve made it this far without saying much of anything about the supporting cast in this story, save for a wry joke about the “they tricked him into thinking he was a robot” revelation. Part of this is simply that they are rather a weak link in the story. Part of this is simply the writing. With Bram dying before he has much characterization, Tricky being ludicrous, and Gregor being both one-note and deliberately unlikeable, there’s not a heck of a lot to do with them. It’s hard not to wish that the all non-white supporting cast hadn’t been saved for almost any other episode of the season so that we didn’t get the uncomfortable moment of the all-black cast being a bunch of looters. 

But there’s still a point worth picking at a bit, which is Tricky. As I noted, the ludicrousness of his plot doesn’t actually stand out particularly when compared to large swaths of the classic series, and a fair bit of the new one. All the same, much as I’m charmed by its sheer pluck, I can’t really argue with a straight face that it works particularly well. It’s tempting to say that this is because that sort of ludicrousness doesn’t actually work anymore, but equally, it’s not like most of the obvious examples from the classic series really spark as high points in the sense of “things you can show other people without embarrassment.” This sort of completely bonkers plot twist has always been something to love as an idiosyncrasy of Doctor Who, as opposed to as a sensible thing to do.


No, the real problem is that this is just a kind of poor choice of stories to put the twist in. As flawed as its engagement with the arc may be, this is the one story other than Name of the Doctor that actually engages substantively with the Impossible Girl arc. An arc, you’ll recall, that is about subverting the idea of treating characters as mysteries to be solved. It is, in other words, a storyline with which a bunch of mysteries that are solved by surprise reveals like “he’s not actually a robot” and “the Time Zombie is Clara” actively clashes. The structure of Journey to the Center of the TARDIS is at war with its message. That’s on one level the entire point of the Impossible Girl arc, but there’s not actually any engagement with the conflict. It’s not a source of tension, it’s just a tonal mismatch. As with Thompson’s other scripts, there’s not so much a sense of what the story wants to be as there is a sense of the job the story wants to do. The job gets done, but at the end of it, we come back to the one question that can’t really be answered about this story: why on Earth did anyone think addressing just one of the many flaws of The Invasion of Time was worth doing thirty-five years after the fact?